Garage Project head brewer Pete Gillespie may be the world’s most prolifically inventive brewer.
Since Garage Project launched in August 2011, Pete estimates it has produced more than 150 different beers – that’s about one every ten days.
The Project hit the ground running, producing 24 distinct beers in its first 24 weeks. Back then it was using a 50L kit – today it has a 2000L kit and is making more then 500,000L a year. It recently expanded into a bar, across Aro St from the brewery. The bar is living proof of Garage Project’s diverse range. With 18 beer taps, everything is produced by Garage Project, and the range is constantly changing.
Pete says it was always intended to make a diverse and evolving range of beers. With a decade’s experience in commercial brewing in the UK and Australia, Pete was after a new challenge.
“So the concept was to do something different and remarkable. I became a brewer because I love recipes and creating. And when you work in a big brewery, you become a bit of a factory worker producing the same thing every day.
“You do learn a lot about reproducing flavours and trouble-shooting and it’s all worthwhile, but it always felt like it would be great to do more new things more often. I’ve heard a lot of craft brewers be very rude about the big boys and it’s totally unfounded.
“A beer might not be to your taste but these guys produce incredible quality over and over again. That technical understanding is incredibly important and it’s the foundation you build everything on. To anyone who wants to get into brewing – it’s important not to skip the basics.”
Garage Project is famous/notorious for using unusual ingredients in its beer. Pete says his technical training and experience allows room to experiment.
“A lot of people assume we do a lot of small batches of a beer before we release it and the answer is generally 'No’. With a very few exceptions we just jump on the big kit and smash out 2000L of it. When you experiment a lot you learn about certain things – you’ve worked with chili before and fruit and herbs. So working with new things has lots of little risks, but not one big risk because you’ve worked with those things before.”
When asked about the strangest ingredients he’s used, Pete proffers a glass of Umami Monster. It includes katsuobushi (dried, fermented tuna) and kombu (dried kelp), but the ingredients are secondary to the flavour.
“Beer is always about flavour balance. Bitter/sweet is the standard, you can do sour/sweet, and you can do savoury/sweet with a rauchbier where the smoke is so savoury. Umami is another flavour, so what can we do with it?
“In Japan they make a broth called dashi with katsuobushi heated in water, then steep the fermented fish. It has such a parallel with making beer it seemed an interesting way to go.
“So we took that same concept to the brewing process. We used 30kg of fermented fish and the brewery did smell quite special that day. It smelt like fish bacon in there, and I did have this 'Oh shit!’ moment, but that beer was fascinating. People enjoyed it, then we told them it had fermented fish in it.
“It’s great to be experimental and use unusual ingredients but there should always be a reason for doing it, and that reason is for flavour. It should make a beer that is more interesting. Don’t ever put something in beer for a stunt. For me that always falls flat and people know instantly.”
Pete says the most frightening ingredient he has used is Brettanomyces and wild yeasts. “After we brewed Bossa Nova (Brett Fermented Tropical Fruit Salad IPA) we filled the tanks literally to the top with boiling water. It was a great beer but Brett is like a vampire – you just don’t invite it into your home!”
The Garage Projectors are planning another brew site to allow them to experiment with different yeasts and bacterial fermentation, without the risk of cross-contamination in the main site.
So how does Pete come up with three new recipes every month? By hanging round with creative people.
“It’s not just one man in a room waiting for inspiration. We interact with other groups like (clothing designer) ALC, (music ensemble) Phoenix Foundation, the New Zealand Ballet, coffee makers, chocolate makers. It’s fun to interact with people and inspiration does come out of it. If you have a confined space with no energy feeding into it, entropy is inevitable. You need energy coming in.
“I don’t keep a big long list of future ideas – I tend not to be that organised. But having said that, last night I wrote down four new things I’m going to try.”